Dark Country Graphic Novel
(The following is mostly reprinted from RawStudios’ Dark Country by Thomas Ott, with a few revisions and updates. The guy who wrote the original article could have really used an editor. I’m no editor, but I did what I could.)
Ever since my parents, young and poor, took me to see the opening day matinee of ALIEN at the tender age of eight (babysitter $ was better spent on electricity in those days), the darkworld of the movie theater has always given me a secret thrill. I’ll never forget, during the chestburster scene, my mother threw her coke on the woman sitting behind her. That lady, wet and sticky, stayed till the end.
Instead of shattering my fragile grasp on reality, the light and shadow from that film that played off the silver screen and into the dark corners of my newly minted soul lit an unquenchable fire inside, one that fed off Mystery, Space and the Unknown. These three muses have haunted me ever since.
It was my keenness for ALIEN (man, that movie was keen) that led my father, not a man to spend hard earned coin on gewgaw, to buy the photobook of the film for me, for sale in the lobby of the Washington, D.C. double balcony Cinema Palace that we used to haunt. Needless to say I was the only 8 year old in my school with an ALIEN photobook – and I mangled it handily, regaling the other kids in my class with a blow by blow account of the film, multiple times, to an ever dwindling audience, until the ragged pages fell out.
That was alright because by that time I had found, in my fever quest for mystery, space and the unknown, a local Bethesda, Maryland used book and ephemera shop by the name of Barbarian Books – complete with passageways only passable by twisting one’s body sideways – and a hunchback shopkeeper. Within those narrow passageways I found a creased copy of the graphic novel ALIEN by Archie Goodwin and Walter Simonson, and new dimensions once again tore into the fabric of my young mind.
In space, no one can hear you scream…
A L I E N: the film and the graphic novel. Thus began my journey into film and comics, if only in my mind. Barbarian Books became my doorway, my secret Wardrobe, from which there was no final return. No going back. All my lawnmower money and most of my paper route money went directly to the hunchback. All this between bouts of TWILIGHT ZONE marathons and excursions into the OUTER LIMITS until my young brain, so recently perverted by Geiger and company, fairly lusted after the dark thrill of semi-psychotic nightmare funhouse rides of sinister subversion. Where else could I find such decrepitude but in the musty pages of the pre-code comic book? (Thank you, Russ Cochran and other reprint houses, both legit and illegit.)
My early influences were not thru the local video shop, which wouldn’t open for another few years. Welles, Cocteau, Lewton, Alton. Those would come later. My Godfathers were the Crypt-Keeper, the Vault-Keeper, Uncle Creepy and Cousin Eerie, Bill Gaines and Al Feldstein and all of the itinerant artists (way too many to list here) that they supported through the pages of their respective publications. They filled my head, night after sweaty night, with visions dark and bittersweet. (Later, it wold be Bruce Jones’ TWISTED TALES and ALIEN WORLDS, but that’s another story.)
An autodidact from way back, I knew that my first film would be a student film of sorts, on which I could cut my teeth (maybe my wrists) and begin to learn the ropes of the dark art of filmmaking. But not just any filmmaking – Film Noir filmmaking.
They say that medium dictates form – be it oil or clay or pen & ink or well-tanned human skin – the stuff you use dictates what you will get in the end. In the case of film, the ‘medium’ is money. Budget dictates what you get. You can fight it, or, like Bruce Lee, you can go with the flow.
B movies of the post-war 1940’s solved their budget problems with shadows (don’t have a set? Throw some bars up on the wall behind Dennis O’Keefe and you have yourself a prison in RAW DEAL). Couple that with the f’d up shit war does to people and a recently cherry-popped American dream – and Films Noir was born. I discovered the film noir in my early twenties and it fit my insides like a wet, black glove.
In the film noir I found a kindred spirit to the pre-code comics that I loved – low key, high contrast lighting, crooked camera angles, deep focus, multiple flashbacks and subjective narration; mirrors reflecting anti-selves, femme fatales and dark horse hero’s undone by their own foibles and insecurities… I could be talking about film noir or any story drawn by Johnny Craig for E.C. comics – or a Thomas Ott picto-story.
Which brings us to the story of the hour — DARK COUNTRY. These days, we see a number of films that pay self conscious homage to comic books (SIN CITY) or creative low budget filmmakers (the grindhouse films) but for me the intentional imitation of the imperfections of a particular medium or genre come across as tender-loving, but somehow insincere… the way you love a raffish, mangy dog who lives in the alleyway, but you’d never let it in your home, with your sheepskin rug and your teak. A more organic way of contributing to or venerating a genre might be to assign yourself the same limitations that led to that particular genres inception.
At least that’s what I told myself when I looked at the budget Sony gave me. Of course nobody wants to work in low or no budget if they don’t have to. But there is a certain amount of freedom inherent therein.
After Lions Gate paid Tab Murphy to adapt the script from his short story, they took a pass on the project when I said, “Hey! Let’s shoot this sucker in 3D!” This was 2006, when only animated films or documentaries that had been ‘converted’ made it to 3D, and those in IMAX theaters.
No one had done a live action 3D theatrical film since the 1980’s.
Naturally, Lions Gate thought I was nuts. I wasn’t nuts (says I) — I was just ahead of the curve. Thanks to my friendship with Ray Zone, who had done some 3D work for us on BAD PLANET, and the Southern California Stereo Club (Ray got me to join), I knew that the Digital Revolution was ushering in a new era of 3D filmmaking.
As it turned out, the Sony Corporation had a new line of 3D TVs in the works, (these were boom years before the crash) and that’s why Sony DVD jumped onboard, to the tune of 2.5 million dollars. This was 2007, and by the time we started shooting only one other 3D film had made it into production, JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH, and they shot most of that on tape.
With such a low risk nut, I think the suits barely glanced at the script after I told them I was making a “3D horror movie” – not entirely true. Had I told them I was making a psycho-noir with undertones of existential nausea – they might have taken a second look, but such is the way of the renegade filmmaker: sometimes we lie.
I don’t think I have to tell you, the suits were less than impressed with the finished product – and for good reason: Dark Country was never going to be a money maker. But it was pure films noir, shot with the same kind of budget and under the same constraints as proto noir; same quick shooting schedule, same barebones script, even the same level of actors. (Speaking for myself, of course. At present, Spielberg has yet to call.)
In this regard I think Dark Country is a worthy addition to the canon. It even has some historical significance, being the first purely digital 3D film ever shot. We’re talking camera assistants running behind cameras with two laptops strapped to slabs of plywood. And, according to Ray Zone, the first 3D steadycam shots.
(DC was certainly not the first d3D to be released – although shot in 2007 the film was not released until 2009, due to several delays in post production, mostly due to this being the first time a ‘3D workflow’ was created, leading to several false starts. Oh, and one time the editors assistant brought the drives home with him, and his apartment burnt down. Nope, not kidding. The delays led to budget problems, and to Paradise FX’s eternal credit, they finished the film mostly on their own dime. The film launched their 3D feature career, with several 3D films now under their belt – the first of which was, ironically, for Lions Gate.)
3D and Noir are not strangers: at least three were made, all in 1953: Mickey Spillane’s I, THE JURY, INFERNO with Robert Ryan and MAN IN THE DARK which was the first 3D picture produced by a major studio (Columbia) and originally released in Sepiatone.
Sony left me alone for the most part, but they did say NO to releasing the film in Black & White. They also insisted that I ADD footage back in after I delivered a 79 minute cut. As mentioned earlier by Eddie Muller, Edgar Ulmer’s DETOUR was a big influence; that ran a brisk 70 minutes. But these days, I was to find out, there is an 88 minute minimum for live action features instated by some foreign territories (this according to Sony’s post production supervisor). I grit my teeth and decided to add the 10 minutes (!) of extra material to the beginning of the film rather than muck with the pace later on. As a result the first 10-15 minutes are not my favorite, with some goofy dialogue in the car and less than compelling direction that had hit the cutting room floor like wet dirt.
In 2013, I got a form letter from Sony informing me that Dark Country was being cut for television. As a member of the Guild I was entitled to supervise the cuts; come up with some PG friendly cuss-words, stuff like that. A lot of directors toss that letter in the trash – what are you gonna do, right? I called them right up and headed down to the lot. In the labyrinthian editing building I found a tiny closet room under the stairs. I knocked on the door. Inside, trapped behind a mountain of tape and a digital edit bay, was Joe Virsi. Joe was alone in the dark, working his way through a heap of Sony’s edited-for-television films. Needless to say he was surprised to see me.
“You must be new at this,” he said. “No one actually comes down here to watch me slice up their films. You a masochist?” I told him, yes, I was new at this. But I didn’t come down to tell Joe whether to go with “Frag off” or “Fung choo.” I pulled a list from my pocket. I asked him, “Does Sony have a minimum running time for television films?”
Joe and I worked for three days, cutting the film back down to its original running time, and then some. I think we got her down to 76 minutes. It was beautiful. Joe, god bless him, loved it. He got to do some real, creative editing, using only the final footage of course, but we had all the sound and music tracks separated and were able to make seamless cuts, shortening shots and reediting scenes and music. The other Sony films were piling up outside the little closet room while Joe and I whittled the extra fat off Dark Country. We even rearranged some shots and added new bits of dialogue. We worked from a 2D master (3D television never took off, alas) but when we were done, Dark Country was as good as it was ever going to get. It felt great.
Will it ever run on television? Who knows. But I may have snuck a copy out of the edit bay when Joe wasn’t looking. I may have a few copies of that stashed away somewhere. I may even hide some inside the dvd sleeve of Thomas Ott’s Dark Country, from time to time. If you happen to pick one up from us at a convention, you might get the directors cut tucked between the covers of the graphic novel; it was always our intention to release both together. To their credit, Sony didn’t balk at giving us the rights to release the book through RawStudios.
Both the film and the graphic novel are a tribute to all the artists involved. Tab Murphy’s evocative and elliptical short story set the tone for both the film that he wrote and Thomas’ graphic novel. The film is slavishly true to David Allcock’s storyboards – which could be released as a book all by itself – as the final mold for Bloodyface is slavishly true to Bernie Wrightson’s “Ghastly” designs. Tim Bradstreet’s sharp eye perforates the entire film; his little touches are everywhere. Just a few of them are presented here. The “Dynamic 3D” that Ray Zone laid out was high quality, seamless and groundbreaking.
Thomas Ott’s stark, silent Dark Country is perhaps the best incarnation of the story, dripping with mystery, space and the unknown in ways that are impossible with moving, talking pictures. That he honored us with his interpretation of the film he helped inspire is testament, I think, to all the artists mentioned above. If I had the chance to do it over again, I hope I would be smart enough to approach Thomas before I started shooting – his take is truer to the original story than mine – and Thomas claims that he didn’t watch the film before laying out the book – using only Tab’s short story and some production art as inspiration. It is amazing how many shots match those in the film. Or is it?
I carried a copy of Ott’s Dead End around with me on set.
…It is a wicked web we weave. By not being forthcoming early on with my intention of a brisk, 70-odd minute psycho-noir, I managed to get my film into production, but Sony Pictures pulled the plug on a 3D Blu-ray release, dropping the film into the DVD bargain bin. (The French, Noir-o-nauts that they are, released a 3D Blu-ray last year..)
A special ‘Halloween Screaming’ of Dark Country was held in Beverly Hills in 2009 (complete with ‘best costume’ contest.) Having never seen it with a real audience, I was chuffed at how many people got the humor of the film. It went over well enough that we were invited to screen the film that year at the first annual Long Beach Comicon – to a packed house in a convention center auditorium – with help from Eric Kurland and the SCSC providing the silver screen and free glasses (please return to the cardboard box when you leave).
Film and comic book geeks were fairly ecstatic over the film. Being literate in all the noir, comic book and Twilight Zone references we had packed into the film, I think they grooved on the renegade heart of the low budget production. Dig that crazy rear-screen projection, man.
We were invited back the following year for two screenings, the second featuring ‘live commentary’ provided by Ray 3D Zone, production designer Tim Bradstreet, and yours truly.
The film got it’s official premiere on May 15, 2010 at the Los Angeles 3D Film Festival, but the dénouement came in November of 2011, when Eddie Muller invited the film and myself up to San Francisco for a one-night-only showcase for the Film Noir Foundation, at the incomparable Castro Theater.
Several hundred Noironauts showed up – this marked the first time Dark Country played for a real paying audience. And once again our strange, flawed little film performed stellarly.
A film without an audience is a dog without a home, a ship without a shore.
Dark Country had finally set port from the dark sea.
April 29, 2012
(revisions Jan 2016)